This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
There is something to be said for the economy in John Sayles' movie titles. He gets his point across in five words or less. The theatrical films he has written and directed bear the names of locations ("Matewan", "Sunshine State", "Silver City", "Limbo") or are deceptively simple descriptive statements ("The Secret of Roan Inish", "The Brother From Another Planet", "Return of the Secaucus Seven", "Amigo"). All 17 titles average out to just under 3 words per movie moniker (actually, 2.5), which means Sayles' 18th movie must star the king of the three word movie title, Steven Seagal. Laugh if you must, but IMDb will tell you Sayles once wrote a film for Dolph Lundgren. Seagal is only a "Marked for Death" sequel away, should Mr. Sayles take my advice.
In the meantime, his 17th film opens September 16th On Demand. "Amigo" follows the path running through much of Sayles' work: It is politically aware, occasionally melodramatic and maintains a certain intimacy despite sprawling across multiple characters and stories. Bitter irony and blatant humanism peacefully co-exist as Sayles' heroes, heroines and villains struggle to maintain the dignity he inherently believes they have. The director's masterpiece, "Lone Star," is the quintessential example of Sayles expressing his themes and ideas in epic format. Anchored by Chris Cooper, "Lone Star" spins a tale of power, race and class across generations, juggling numerous characters with whom the story invests such weight and interest that I could follow any of them out of the film and into their own adventures.
"Amigo" is not as tightly crafted as "Lone Star." It's a messier work whose dialogue is at times a tad too purple, its political allusions a little too obvious, and it has a one-note character that is uncharacteristic of its creator. Much of its plot is predictable in an old-fashioned, yet comforting studio-system way. Reminiscent of a sloppier E. L. Doctorow novel, "Amigo" merges real-life characters with fictional ones while plumbing a bygone era for parallels of today. Like Doctorow, Sayles provides numerous details of the period he depicts, culled from the research he did for his book "A Moment in the Sun." Its U.S. occupation plotline could represent Iraq or Vietnam or Afghanistan, and its soldier characters are good ol' boys found in many an old war movie (and many an actual platoon, as well). What makes "Amigo" engrossing despite its predictability is the object of its gaze: This is an occupation story, but for a change, "the Other" is us. The occupied people are observing the outsiders who have interrupted their life narrative by invading their country. In "Amigo," we are entrenched in the Philippine-American War (1899-1902).
Sayles did his homework before making "Amigo," so I had to do mine before watching it. I am sure we covered the Philippine-American War back in my high school U.S. History II class, but history was my least favorite subject, so I remembered nothing I was taught. (I'm so sorry, Mr. Selby.) My pals at Wikipedia filled in some of the blanks for me. "Amigo" opens with voiceover telling us that the U. S. had earlier declared war on Spain in the hopes of freeing Cuba. In 1898, Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States despite the fact that Filipinos controlled all of the Philippines except Manila. Independence was declared by General Emilio Aguinaldo, who was ignored by both Spain and the U. S. According to the opening narration, American soldiers came "half a world away" to another Spanish colony in 1899 and "decided to stay."